TORONTO -- The Toronto Blue Jays were being stolen blind. They had set a record for stolen bases allowed in a postseason. They had been denied a more positive place in the record book when an apparent triple play was stolen from under their noses. It was almost criminal.
But when it came down to crunch time last night, they beat the Atlanta Braves at their own game.
Left fielder Candy Maldonado delivered a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth to give the Blue Jays a 3-2 victory in the first World Series game ever played outside the United States, but it was a stolen base that made it happen.
"I set the table for the big guys," said Toronto's Roberto Alomar, who singled and stole second.
There followed an intentional walk, a sacrifice, another intentional walk and a couple of pitching changes before Maldonado won a head-to-head showdown with Jeff Reardon and put the Blue Jays up 2-1 in the best-of-seven Series.
The Braves had done essentially the same thing to take the lead in the eighth inning, the go-ahead run set up when Otis Nixon stole second on a pitchout. But the Blue Jays came back to score another dramatic victory and send the sellout crowd of 51,813 into hysterics.
"I had seen him and know that he uses that slider," said Maldonado, who hit an 0-2 pitch. "He made me look bad on two [swinging strikes]. I saw no reason to think he wouldn't throw it again."
Things are not going well for Reardon, who gave up a game-winning, two-run homer to Ed Sprague in the ninth inning of Game 2.
"I haven't done the job I would have hoped to," Reardon said. "I just have to come out tomorrow or the next day and do the best I can."
It was the second game in a row decided after the eighth inning. The Braves appeared ready to put the hammer down when 1991 World Series goat Lonnie Smith delivered a two-out single to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning, but it wasn't going to be quite that simple.
Braves left-hander Steve Avery was cruising at that point. He had given up just three hits and set a season high with eight strikeouts through the seventh inning. But Kelly Gruber, whose error at third base had turned into the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, broke a postseason record 0-for-23 slump with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eighth.
That got Juan Guzman off the hook after an eight-inning performance in which he gave up two runs on eight hits. He gave way to reliever Duane Ward in the ninth and was not involved in the decision.
Gruber also was right in the middle of a strange play in the fourth inning that almost put Toronto in the history books.
The Blue Jays nearly pulled off one of the greatest defensive plays in World Series history. Well, they actually did pull one off, but they didn't get credit where credit should have been due.
Devon White made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch to rob David Justice of an extra-base hit in the fourth inning, setting off a series of events that should have culminated with only the second triple play ever turned in the World Series.
"That catch turned the game around," Atlanta manager Bobby )) Cox said.
The Braves had runners at first and second when Justice launched his line drive to straightaway center. White made his leaping catch to record the first out of the inning and Terry Pendleton passed Deion Sanders on the bases to record the second. This is where it gets interesting.
White threw the ball to second baseman Alomar, who unwittingly tried to throw out Pendleton returning to first. Never mind that Pendleton already was out, the throw coaxed Sanders to break from second base and hang himself up in a rundown.
The first World Series triple play since Cleveland second baseman Bill Wambsganss' unassisted one in 1920 seemed like just a formality at that point. First baseman John Olerud threw the ball to third baseman Gruber, who chased Sanders back toward second and made a diving tag.
Umpire Bob Davidson ruled Sanders safe and touched off the second major umpiring controversy of the series. The video replay clearly (very clearly) showed that Gruber did tag Sanders well before he got back to the base.
Gruber argued animatedly, and why not? He had a chance to write his name in the record book, but he also bore a small measure of the responsibility for letting a historic moment get away. He ran the speedier Sanders all the way back to second when he could have flipped the ball to Alomar for an easier out.
In short, the triple play was possible because of a throw that
should not have been made (the unnecessary throw to first) and it was prevented in part because of a throw that should have been.
Pendleton should get some discredit for making it possible, too. What was he doing? The play was right in front of him, but he apparently anticipated the ball off the wall and badly overran the play.
The Blue Jays settled for a double play, but it would be enough to help Guzman get out of a serious jam.
"To win games, you have to play good defense," Alomar said. "That's why he won the Gold Glove: because he's the best in center field."
If White had not made the catch, the Braves would have scored twice and Justice would have been at second with no one out.
Instead, Braves starter Steve Avery would blink first, giving up a bases-empty home run to right fielder Joe Carter in the bottom of the fourth. Carter, who also homered in Game 1, put the Blue Jays in the record book as the first team ever to hit at least one home run in nine consecutive postseason games. (The Orioles (1970) and Milwaukee (1982) did it in eight games).
The Braves answered in the sixth, taking advantage of a one-out double by Sanders to tie the game. Pendleton followed with an infield hit and Justice pulled a single to score the run.
The Blue Jays still are trying to figure out what to do about Sanders, who was a surprise starter in each of the last two games and looks like he is going to stay in the lineup until someone finds a way to get him out. He reached base in each of his first three plate appearances last night and has three hits, three walks and three stolen bases in eight trips since Cox inserted him in the lineup.
Despite throwing out Brian Hunter in the ninth, the Blue Jays still are having trouble trying to stop runners on the bases. When Nixon stole second on a pitchout to set up the go-ahead run in the eighth, it was the 25th base stolen against Toronto during this postseason -- seven more than the previous record.
Braves-Blue Jays scoring
Blue Jays fourth: Alomar grounded to third baseman Pendleton. Carter homered to left on 0-0 count. Winfield popped to second baseman Lemke. Olerud grounded to pitcher Avery. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 1, Braves 0.
Braves sixth: Nixon grounded to second baseman Alomar. Sanders doubled down the right-field line. Pendleton singled to shortstop, Sanders to third. Justice singled to right, Sanders scored, Pendleton to second. L. Smith lined to right fielder Carter. Bream grounded to first baseman Olerud, pitcher Guzman covering. 1 run, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 1, Blue Jays 1.
Braves eighth: Nixon safe on third baseman Gruber's fielding error. Nixon stole second. Sanders popped to shortstop Lee. Pendleton grounded to second baseman Alomar, Nixon to third. Justice intentionally walked. L. Smith singled to left, Nixon scored, Justice to second; Justice out at third, center fielder White to third baseman Gruber. 1 run, 1 hit, 1 error, 1 left on. Braves 2, Blue Jays 1.
Blue Jays eighth: Gruber homered to left on 3-2 count. Borders flied to center fielder Nixon. Lee grounded to shortstop Blauser. White struck out. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 2, Braves 2.
Blue Jays ninth: Hunter to first base, batting 6th. Alomar singled to center. Wohlers relieved Avery. Alomar stole second. Carter intentionally walked. Winfield sacrificed, first baseman Hunter to second baseman Lemke, Alomar to third, Carter to second. Stanton relieved Wohlers. Sprague, pinch hitting for Olerud, intentionally walked. Reardon relieved Stanton. Maldonado singled to center, Alomar scored, Carter to third, Sprague to second. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 3 left on. Blue Jays 3, Braves 2.
Toronto Blue Jays vs. Atlanta Braves (Blue Jays lead, 2-1) Game 1: Braves 3, Blue Jays 1
Game 2: Blue Jays 5, Braves 4
Game 3: Blue Jays 3, Braves 2
Tonight: at Toronto, 8:26
Tomorrow: at Toronto, 8:26
Saturday: at Atlanta, 8:26*
Sunday: at Atlanta, 8:29*
(*-if necessary) TV: Channels 11, 9
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)